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Quality Churnalism: Ethnographic insights into business news production


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This paper feeds into public and academic discourses about declining quality standards in print journalism, in particular the claim that newsroom pressure for increased productivity invariably yields low quality journalism or churnalism, the churning of ready-made source materials into news articles. Drawing on ethnographic data collected at the business newsdesk of De Standaard, a Flemish quality newspaper, I illustrate how business journalists actually write news from corporate and agency sources by tracking the news production process from story entry to (pre-final) publication.

My data provide detailed empirical evidence for the discursive intricacies of reproductive newswriting, i.e. writing from sources. Specifically, my data highlight how churnalism

(i) forces attention to the materiality, creativity and domain knowledge of journalists;
(ii) prompts news frames which enable journalists to write fast and efficiently;
(iii) is a journalistic genre in its own right.

Taken together, these findings contribute to a more empirically grounded discussion of sourcing practices in a globalized journalism.

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Quality Churnalism: Ethnographic insights into business news production

  1. 1. Quality Churnalism: Ethnographic Insights into Business News Production Tom Van Hout NewsTalk&Text Ghent University Journalism in the 21st Century: Between Globalization and National Identity July 16-17, 2009 | University of Melbourne | Melbourne, Australia
  2. 2. Two faces of journalism: ‘new’ media Technological innovation A digital revolution in journalism New journalistic practices Cultural shifts in news production and consumption Audiences: from passive consumers of news to active producers of news (aka ‘produsers’ or ‘prosumers’)
  3. 3. Two faces of journalism: ‘old’ media Mainstream media are struggling with the print to online migration Declining numbers: circulation, audience figures, advertising revenue, staff count and market capitalization are down Print journalism in particular has been bleeding red ink Interinstitutional news coherence and news isomorphism
  4. 4. Churnalism: rip and read journalism journalists have become news processors instead of generators market demands force smaller workforces to produce more journalists have become less weary of PR copy decreased editorial independence in UK newsrooms Source: Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008
  5. 5. Source reliance: news agencies “approximately half (49 per cent) of news stories published in the quality press and analysed for this study were wholly or mainly dependent on materials produced and distribute [sic] by wire services with a further fifth (21 per cent) of stories containing some element of agency copy.” Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008: 29-30
  6. 6. Source reliance: PR sources “similarly striking with almost a fifth (19 per cent) of stories deriving wholly (10 per cent) or mainly (9 per cent) from PR sources. A further 22 per cent were either a mix of PR with other materials (11 per cent) or mainly other information (11 per cent) while 13 per cent of stories appeared to contain PR materials which could not be identified.” Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008: 30
  7. 7. Content analysis & source transparency “textual precedents to news articles” Keyword-based content analyses of two single-week samples comprising 2,207 newspaper stories of UK domestic news and their respective public relations and news agency source materials Source: Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008
  8. 8. The process of print news production Batch vs. Real Time Processing, Print vs. Online Journalism: Why the Best Web News Brands Will Never Look Like The New York Times Cody Brown -
  9. 9. The process of print news production “The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit- show that is actual news production is hidden away.” Cody Brown
  10. 10. Analyzing the news process Follow the story: entry – negotiation – writing
  11. 11. Case study: Gazprom
  12. 12. Story entry and assignment Gaz de France (GdF) press release announcing new contract between Gazprom and GdF News agency feed: spotted by the desk chief Assigned to Steve during an editorial conference
  13. 13. Story production Gazprom process product differential Total number of characters 1879 1592 287 Total number of words 328 291 27 Production time (in minutes) 32.10 / / Pause time (in minutes) 15.47 / / Total duration of writing process (in minutes) 47.58 / /
  14. 14. Story production
  15. 15. Story production
  16. 16. Selecting and organizing source texts Copying news agency feeds first of all they’re in Dutch ... and also because [the Belga feed was based on] AFP and DPA and we’re not directly subscribed to these…this was relevant in this case because I had read in the papers that a number of French journalists followed Gaz de France to Moscow’.
  17. 17. Selecting and organizing source texts Reducing source material I start scanning...starting systematically at the top, seeing what’s most important and having seen how much space I am given (to write the news story) and then I select what’s important in this story and start deleting everything I think is not useful for the story.
  18. 18. Writing the lead
  19. 19. Findings Reproductive writing – Source reliance on PR and press agency copy – Interpretive creativity in revision strategies – Materiality of digital writing: space constraints Churnalism as a process of entextualization Transformation of various news discourses into a unified, narrative account of news event Comprising interpretation, creativity, domain knowledge and reproduction
  20. 20. Conclusions A linguistics of news production: Offers detailed description of situated agency Illuminates the practice of reproductive news writing Documents the institutional trajectories of news Contributes to a more nuanced understanding of news work in a globalized journalism
  21. 21. Further information – Tom Van Hout – Ghent University – – NewsTalk&Text – – –